LETTER: A voice and a breath: Something we all need to fight for
To the editor:
I am a man. I am a human being. I am a black man living in the great nation of America. It was with great sadness and also some rage, but I dare say not surprise, when as I lay there in my hospital bed in late May, recovering from pneumonia, with my own lungs thankfully on the mend after having received great care and I was able to inhale and exhale, that I saw on the TV that George Floyd’s lungs had stopped working because a white police officer had choked the life out of him.
Like every black person in the great nation of America, I have experienced racism. Not at all like George Floyd. Not literally a knee on my neck. But I have seen it and felt it since I was a young man all the way back in high school and in Texas where it was more overt. And then here when I moved to Seattle many decades ago I have felt it but it tends to be a little more covert here than in Texas. Sometimes.
I recall being a successful football player and boxer in school. My Dad wanted me to box. I was good at it. I won a Golden Glove. I was a successful student. My parents taught me from an early age that they could never take my education away. And that education, and the lessons I have learned of the value of determination, respect for myself and others, hard work, the value of serving others, these have all helped me along in life.
So it hurt when as a high school senior and a star athlete, a good student, I asked a girl to the high school prom and then she let me know that as a white girl her dad would not allow her to go to the dance with a boy that looked like me.
I was injured when I had to work extra hard and be extra nice to get the same job that a white person just had to simply apply for. Or be extra patient and work more years after I was more than qualified just to get that promotion. Or been referred to in the most vulgar terms used by a white person toward a black person. All this I tried to rise above.
My parents always tried to impress upon me, that despite all the hate in the world and the oppression of black people in this country, they impressed upon me a belief that we were all members of one race – the human race. That God created us all as equals and sees me as the same, as a person, without regard to the color of my skin. But as a person that lives in this country, a country that was founded in many ways on the free labor of slaves, I have seen the killing of Emmitt Till, of Medger Evers, the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Michael Brown and so many more. And then from my hospital bed, recovering, I see the murder of George Floyd. It is a long list of black men killed by cops. And not just black men. The list of names we say out loud needs to include black children like 12 year old Timar Rice and black women. Women like Breonna Taylor and also names like Tanisha Anderson who were in the news once, but black women killed by police don’t seem to make the headlines so much.
So while I have not experienced racism like George Floyd or Timar Rice or Tanisha Anderson, in some ways it seems like it was just luck. And that makes the racism in America all the more troubling. Whether you live or die is just bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong police officer? Where is the justice in that?
As a black man, in my hospital bed recovering from a grave case of pneumonia, I saw protesters of all colors coming out by the thousands in Seattle to protest the killing of George Floyd. And then I saw the Seattle Police overreacting and brutally push down protesters. They were not a few bad apples. They were acting within a system of systemic racism. The same as police in other cities across the nation. While I support police arresting those who loot and destroy, I am strongly against the pushing down of protesters. Why are so many politicians and police officers so afraid of people marching in protest against police brutality? Shouldn’t they all be in support of getting rid of this systemic racism in our police force here in Seattle and across the nation?
That is why I was proud to hear about our union’s leadership in the MLK Labor Council and calling on the Seattle People Officer Guild (SPOG) and Mayor Durkan to address the systemic racism head-on and immediately, or kick SPOG out of our county’s labor council. Organized labor can no longer tolerate systemic racism and we need to use our clout to stamp it out, not cover it up.
Through my union grocery store job I feel like I have protections and a platform that I would not have outside of a union job. And my union gave me an opportunity to take time off my job from QFC and go and work to campaign for a young junior senator from Illinois who would become our nation’s first black President. And then I went door to door in Missouri as union workers fought for Proposition A and defeated the corporate “Right to work for less” law. And then I went door to door again in Oregon for the Governor of that state. A black man going door to door in Portland, OR knocking on doors after dark to talk about politics. Some may say not the safest thing to do, but I feel it was very important that we use the voice we have to change the world we live in.
Sometimes we can change the world by taking on battles the help elect a president, or a governor, or change the laws. Sometimes we can help change the world by saying the names of Breonna Taylor and Tanisha Anderson. Sometimes we can change the world by marching in peaceful protest despite the understanding that the police may beat us down. And sometimes we can help change the world by building power in the workplace so more workers have a voice and a platform like me to make our workplaces safer for ourselves and our customers.
As a grocery store worker at the Westwood QFC for many years, I know hundreds of customers. When COVID 19 arrived, as a Front End Manager and union leader, I was very involved in our effort to push our store to be cleaner and safer for all workers and customers. I was dismayed at Kroger’s, the owner of QFC, decision to take away the meager $2/hour hero pay in mid- May. We work on the front line, helping Kroger in some stores double their revenue, and they did this? Then our union, together with other unions and communities across the west came together and took action, exposed the greed and the company blinked and have offered us a bonus. Hardly enough in the face of daily exposure to a deadly virus. But something that they did not want to give. It was not enough, but the point is that when we got organized, took action together, we made change.
And sometimes the change we bring comes back to us in unexpected and beautiful ways. Like when I came back to my store after getting out of the hospital and found all the get-well cards left by my customers. Customers I have gotten close to over the years and who knew I was ill. They were concerned and they wanted me to know that I was in their prayers. And because of a good health plan that my union brothers and sisters and I have fought for, and the caring professionals at the hospital, and the luck that we get sometimes, I am breathing today. My lungs are breathing healthy again, for the time being. But let’s remember George Floyd and that his lungs will never take another breath and we need to use our voices to wipe out the stain of systemic racism in our country’s policing, and broken systems of criminal justice, voting, health care, education, and employment. And one way to do that is to build bigger and better unions so that every worker in the country who wants a union at work can have a union at work.
I'm a white man who has, to the best of my ability, tried to treat all people equally, regardless of skin color or creed. Sometimes I have been successful, sometimes I have failed. But then we're all flawed, complex creatures who battle our inner demons on a daily basis - whether we are black, white, Asian, Hispanic. If this weren't the case, I doubt there would be a need for the Ten Commandments, or any other holy writ that provides a moral outline for behavior.
I have no reason to doubt your personal journey or experiences, but when we're discussing so-called "systemic racism," we should probably turn to peer-reviewed large scale studies. Take, for example, the belief that police officers are targeting black men. A 2015 study published in the prestigious Nation Academy of Sciences that looked at over 900 officer associated fatalities, over 650 precincts across the country, found NO evidence that white police officers were more likely to shoot black civilians. Another 2015 study that looked at the Philadelphia police department found that black and Hispanic officers were MORE likely to shoot black civilians than their white counterparts.
Without doubt there have been horrific cases of police brutality - including George Floyd - but there are police officers who have had their careers ruined by over zealous activists, such as in the case of Ofc. Darren Wilson. An Obama Justice Department grand jury found insufficient evidence to file charges Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. To his credit, President Obama insisted on letting the justice system takes its course. Nonetheless, a startling number of Americans are convinced that Michael Brown was murdered.
Of course the police can do better (more training for dealing with those experiencing a mental health crisis, for example) but I would caution, respectfully, about drawing sweeping conclusions about police departments (and other Americans, for that matter) from personal experiences and/or anecdotal information.
(PS: I wish you a speedy recovery from your illness. )
Correction to my submission: The 2nd paragraph should read "National Academy of Sciences," not "Nation Academy of Sciences."
I celebrate Sam and honor your generous gift of sharing your story and life experience with us. We see you Sam. Thank you!!!
For Greg or any other white or non-Black POC folks who want to draft a reply as the one posted previously, ask yourself: as Black people are being violently murdered on tv and re-shared on social media every day in the United States for the world to see, is now really the time to attempt to discredit them by using studies, skewed data or other stats? What is the impact of that post? What was your true intent? How did it make you feel after writing it Greg? How do you think it made Sam feel? How do you think it made someone like me, a mixed race woman raising mixed Black boys in Seattle, feel? Do you think we feel safe knowing people like you are willing to discount our truth, our LIVES so quickly? In the words of Toni Morrison: “If you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else”
Next time please reconsider posting Greg. A simple “Thank you, I hope you recover from pneumonia quickly” would suffice.
Thank you, Sammy, for your heartfelt letter. It means much to hear about the experiences and insight. Be well and recover quickly. And, thanks for your union advocacy.
ATU 587 (retired)
First of all, Katherine, I'd appreciate you taking the time to spell my name correctly, thanks. It's a small courtesy, but society operates on small courtesies.
Secondly, I quoted you a study from a scholarly periodical, certainly not a right-wing propaganda rag. Why do we conduct large scale studies? To weed out bias, such as those that come from personal experiences that may be tinged with emotions - like your response, for example.
Thirdly, I don't require lectures about "black people" as if they dropped from some alien planet aren't also human beings, capable of the same great achievements, but susceptible to the same flaws, as well.
When an individual makes generalizations and stereotypes about other Americans, I'm going to ask that person to rethink those assumptions.